America’s First Amphibious Invasion of WWII: The Battle of Guadalcanal

In 1942 World War II came to the Solomon Islands, a small British protectorate in the Pacific 800 miles east of New Guinea. Made up of sixteen major volcanic islands and island groups, surrounded by coral reefs, the islands ranged from light vegetation to others with thick rain forests and steep peaks of more 5,000 feet flanked by deep ravines and jungle. In the 1930s native inhabitants made up more than 95 percent of the nearly 100,000 residents. Their quiet island life would be interrupted as war arrived. While the Allies and Japanese had clashed in the air and in the waters of the Pacific, they had not faced each other in major ground combat. And there had been no major American amphibious landings. That changed in the Solomon Islands.

Imperial Japanese forces understood the strategic importance of the Solomons, and began occupation in January 1942. This string of islands runs almost 700 miles southeast from the island of Bougainville in the north to Makira in the south. The Japanese 8th Area Army was responsible for opposing Allied landings in the Solomon Islands and New Guinea

The Japanese made their regional headquarters at the port of Rabaul on New Britain, and began bases for aircraft and seaplanes around the region. About six months later, in early July 1942, the Japanese landed on Guadalcanal, an island about fifty miles northwest of Makira, and began an airfield on the north coast, and a seaplane base on the neighboring island of Tulagi. Guadalcanal and Tulagi became the southeast corner of Japan’s strategic perimeter in the Pacific. Flights from these bases could search the Coral Sea and the New Hebrides, and the supply routes to Australia from the east.

The Allies had observed the Japanese advance and determined the lower Solomons would be the best place to attack. Gaining control of this area would safeguard convoys to Australia, frustrate Japanese plans, and threaten Rabaul, the new base for the Japanese Southern Fleet. The decision to attack was made the day after the Japanese landed at Guadalcanal. With little time for preparation, American forces planned their first amphibious invasion in the war in about one month.

The 1st Marine Division would make the assault landings on Guadalcanal, Tulagi, and Florida Islands. Army troops would then relieve them. The Navy would provide fire and air support and engage Japanese naval forces along with construction, communications, medical, and supply services. Supply plans called for 60 days of food and ammunition, and 90 days of construction material. Hospital ships and ground hospitals deployed to nearby areas and islands to support the invasion, which began on August 7, 1942.

B-17s of the 26th Squadron and 11th Bombardment Group raided Guadalcanal, Florida Island, and Tulagi in preparation for the 19,000 soldiers approaching in warships and transports. A supporting aircraft carrier battlegroup moved to a point southwest of the island. The landing force ran in toward Guadalcanal under rain clouds that broke in the early hours. They had achieved surprise. Carrier aircraft attacked the landing areas. Cruisers and destroyers shelled targets ashore as Marines, Marine raiders, and parachute battalions landed on Florida Island, Tulagi and other small islands of the seaplane base.  The 5th Marines landed on Guadalcanal’s north shore on “Red Beach.” The first assault by two reinforced battalions was unopposed and followed by reinforcing heavy weapons groups. Engineers landed and with the 5th Marines began to dig in. The 1st Marines came ashore and passed through the beachhead. Battalions of the 1st and 5th Marines prepared to take Lunga Point, the new airfield, and Mt. Austin.  Back at the beachhead supplies began to pile up on the beach. Landing supplies was difficult because it required sailors and additional engineers to straighten out the large quantities required. About 11,000 troops had landed on Guadalcanal.

At Rabaul, over 600 miles away, the Japanese 8th Fleet began to respond to the American landings. They believed at first they were raids to destroy aviation facilities, not an invasion. Japanese land based aircraft conducted two raids that afternoon, damaging the destroyer USS Mugford and several aircraft. Later in the afternoon a surface action force of five heavy cruisers, two light cruisers, and a destroyer set out from Rabaul to attack the Americans.

The following day, on August 8th, the plan to occupy Mt. Austen was dropped. The jungle reduced movement and would complicate supply.  Marine battalions moved west taking hours to move a few hundred yards due to the dense jungle. North of them the 1st Battalion of the 5th Marines skirted the edge of the jungle and quickly overran the airfield, discovering many intact structures, equipment, shelters for aircraft, hangars, and machine shops, and a 3,600 foot runway. The only damage came from the pre-invasion bombardment and careless destruction.  Along the coast Marines moved faster through Japanese positions in clearings and coconut plantations.  Resistance was sparse and a few prisoners were taken, along with supplies of weapons, food and ammunition. At the beachhead the offloading of supplies remained problematic.  

That afternoon 44 long range Japanese torpedo bombers attacked. The destroyer Jarvis, and the transport Elliot were lost. American aircraft carrier planes and antiaircraft downed a dozen raiders. By this point American aircraft carriers USS Enterprise, Saratoga, and Wasp, had together launched 1,384 sorties over two days, losing 21 aircraft. With fuel low and a significant threat of torpedo bombers, the carriers withdrew.

While losses on land had been slight, damage and loss of ships was significant but sustainable. Japanese intelligence had misread the Guadalcanal invasion. At first they thought it only a destructive raid, and later underestimated the American forces involved. Their response ran behind the Allied buildup, hence their losses increased. The 2,500 Japanese construction troops and 800 Imperial Navy land troops were defeated in a few days. With more than 8oo killed or captured, the rest fled to the forests of Florida Island. However, on the night of August 8, the 8th Fleet of the Imperial Japanese Navy was about to raid the area. The Imperial Navy was among the best night fighting forces at sea. From further afield ships, aircraft, soldiers of the Imperial Army and Navy began to move toward the Solomon Islands. The fight for the Solomon Islands had just begun. 

Suggested Reading

John Miller, Jr., Guadalcanal: The First Offensive (Washington, Center of Military History, 1949)

Masanori Ito, The End of the Imperial Japanese Navy (New York, Macfadden-Bartell, 1965) A wartime Japanese journalist’s description of the naval war based on interviews.

Tamenichi Hara, Japanese Destroyer Captain (New York, Ballentine, 1965) An eyewitness account of naval operations.

Charles R. Anderson, Guadalcanal ( Washington, U.S. Government Printing Office) A book length brochure with images and maps.

Fighting on Guadalcanal (Washington, U.S. Government Printing Office, 1943) – Opinions of soldiers of all ranks on the island, an official wartime report for distribution.

Solomon Islands Campaign: The Landing in the Solomons 7-8 August 1942 (Office of Naval Intelligence, Publications Branch, 1943)  - An official wartime report for distribution.

 John Zimmerman, The Guadalcanal Campaign (Washington, Marine Historical Division, 1949). An official history.